The Nine Wise Men
In 1981, Lionel Evans sat in his father’s backyard with his father and grandfather, Uncle Corlando, Jimmy Lee from across the street, not to be confused with Jimmy Ray from North Carolina. But he was also there. They drank moonshine and told lies about marriage that passed as truth. Turns out his father had done the same thing with his father back in Kinston, North Carolina some twenty years prior and the legend goes that each male member of the family was assembled as far back as the family’s sharecropping days.
It could’ve been another one of those lies that became fact as time went on, but “Wisdom Night” was an Evans family tradition in 2019. Mark sat as the guest of honor and looked at himself in the faces of many of the men surrounding him. His dad opened a bottle of scotch purchased the year he was born and poured a shot for himself and then the eight of the ten men assembled in his basement.
“Tonight, I’ve assembled the best married men I know, to share their wisdom with my boy Mark,” his father raised a glass and the rest of the men followed.
Mark stared at the bottom of his empty shot glass and wondered just where the night was headed. There had only been one “Wisdom Night” in the last fifteen years and he was too young to attend or even hear the details of that night. He remembers his father and Uncle Marlon coming in so drunk the next morning that his mother and Aunt Terry woke everyone up yelling and cussin’. He didn’t want that type of night. Couldn’t have that type of night. His wedding was the next evening and being hungover is not a good idea on your wedding day.
“Son, I love you, but you’re not ready to get married.”
Mark began to object, but his father waved him off.
“You’re not ready until you learn what it means to be married. And these men are going to learn you tonight.”
The basement erupted in laughter and Mark settled in his seat, face warm with embarrassment. He looked around the room and saw himself in many of the men laughing. His grandfather, father, great uncle, uncle, and two cousins all carried the same distinct features, particularly when laughing. It wasn’t hard to tell an Evans man when you saw him.
Another family tale has his great-grandmother telling Uncle Glenn that his youngest son Dennis wasn’t his because the baby had a cleft in his chin and none of her kin had clefts. It took nearly 8 years, but Aunt Corinda finally admitted that Dennis was indeed not Glenn’s child.
“Brother Giddings,” Mark’s father started, “We’re breaking tradition by bringing the father-in-law into our night, but I think it’s just right to have you here.”
Serena’s father raised his glass and shot a glance towards Mark. Mark and Serena had only been together a year, but Mr. Giddings had really taken to the young man quickly. There was something about Mark that reminded him of himself when he was young and just starting out. The young man was driven, knew what he wanted, and knew that he wanted his daughter to be at his side the entire time. He courted Marcia, Serena’s mother, for six months before proposing and they’ve been married nearly 40 years.
“Let me say a few words,” Pop stood up and a quiet came over the room. Pop wasn’t a man of many words, but at 83-years-old, he commanded respect when he chose to share what was on his mind. “Marriage is bout the realest thing you gonna get yourself into son. You ready cuz you said so, but it lasts when you do it.”
Pop drank his shot and sat down.
Uncle Greg was next. He wasn’t an Evans. Wasn’t even family. He was Lionel's best friend from college, but much closer and more reliable than Uncle Marlon.
“One thing to remember, Mark, is when she’s right, she right. When she’s wrong, she’s right. When you’re right, she’s right. When you’re wrong, she’s happy.”
The men laughed and his shot disappeared.
Uncle Marlon started to stand, but he second-guessed himself and stayed seated. Mark wondered what advice could come from a man with three ex-wives and seven children, two of them outside of his first and third marriages. Instead, Mr. Giddings cleared his throat and stood.
“I know I’m out of the norm here, but I just wanted to thank you Lionel for having me here on this sacred night. Mark, when I first met you, I knew you were the man for my little girl. I pulled her to the side and told her not to mess this up. You love my daughter with an intensity that I don’t see too often. Take your time. Continue to learn one another. Continue to teach one another. Keep chasing the love you thought was impossible and just be good to my baby.”
There was a tremble in his voice at the end and his eyes threatened to empty, but he took his shot and composed himself. Mark went over and slapped his shoulder. Mr. Giddings stood up and the two embraced. A little longer than many of the men in the room were comfortable with. When they broke apart, Mark’s left shoulder was moist. Uncle Corlando thought he saw a wet spot on Giddings’ shoulder too.
The next 15 minutes was filled with great advice, “Listen to her, hear her heart” from his cousin Jason and a few honest words from Uncle Marlon, “Keep it in your pants, boy.” All the shots had been downed except one, his father’s.
When Lionel stood, Uncle Marlon grabbed the bottle and poured a shot in Mark’s glass. Finally. He didn’t want to get drunk, but he needed a drink to take the edge off. He was getting married tomorrow and was more nervous than he let on.
“Mark, I bought this bottle in 1987 for this night right here. I always thought I knew what I would say to you when this night came. But I don’t. You’ve always been an independent boy, figurin’ things out on your own and doing damn good. We do this because marriage ain’t something you go into without knowing what you’re doing, but you seem to always know what you’re doing, so we’re doing this for us tonight. My father raised his glass for me, and his father did it for him. His too. I pray one day you’ll do the same.”
He raised his glass, and everyone stood. Mark too.
“While you’re figurin’ your marriage out, remember this night, remember all of these words. Even your Uncle Marlon’s. I ain’t got much advice but remember these things: Don’t let one fight become bigger than your love. Let her know every day that you’re in this thing with her. Never walk out of the house without kissing her. And if you’re trying to beat your wife at marriage, you both lose.”
The father and son shared a shot like they did when Mark turned 21. Then hugged. The rest of the men drank their shots and then started pouring freely from the bottle. Mark didn’t try to hide the tears as he looked at these men who loved him enough to be vulnerable about marriage with him. He laughed as the shots and toasts kept going, realizing why Aunt Terry had cussed Uncle Marlon out all those many years ago.